What’s wrong with systematic theology?
Last weekend during a church service the leader talked about a training scheme which the church is running saying something along the lines of we study the Bible in more detail using Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Now, I might be awkward, but I’m far from convinced that studying a systematic theology is a good way to learn about the Bible. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s a good way to learn anything, apart from the cultural and theological presuppositions of the author.
The problem with systematic theologies, is that they are systematic. God’s revelation to us in the Bible is not systematic. It’s messy, it’s complicated, it tells the story of people who mess up, of God who gets involved in the life of his creation and redeems it. The Bible narrative is compelling; sometimes exciting, sometimes complicated but it is not systematic. God did not give us a system, he gave us a story.
Systematic theologians go through the story, drawing threads together to make into a system – but the story isn’t neat and tidy and some bits don’t fit into their systems. What’s more, the system they choose is determined by their own background. Now, you might take a weighty systematic theology book and read through and think that it contains everything that you might ever want to know about God and the Bible. But as a challenge, look up the section on the theology of ancestors. You probably won’t find one. Yet, the Bible has tons to say about ancestors, think about the chapter upon chapter of begatting in the Old Testament. If that isn’t teaching on ancestors, what is? A systematic theology written by an African or an Asian might well have pages and pages on ancestors – but it doesn’t fit the system here in the West. This becomes a problem when (as often happens) people start to mistake the system for the message of the Bible. Important things (like ancestors) are left out because they don’t fit the system and other things get systematised to death (try reading what Grudem has to say about the Trinity) and lose the relational aspect that breaths life into the Scriptures.
My suspicion is that western minds, conditioned by a philosophical tradition that goes back thousands of years, default naturally to putting things into systems. Linnaeus did a great job systematising the natural world and the periodic table of the elements is a thing of beauty, but I remain unconvinced that what works for natural sciences actually works for the God who created nature.
John Hobbins has posted on a similar theme today: though he is more erudite and manages to quote in Hebrew and bring a Golden Retriever into the story – you can’t get much cooler than that.